Queenie, an old colleague of Harold’s is dying. When Harold gets the news, he finds he can’t post the letter he’s written to her, so he just keeps on walking. And so he starts his 627 mile walk that takes him 87 days away from his home and wife Maureen in Kingsbridge in Cornwall to Queenie in the hospice in Berwick in Scotland. This is “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce.
Using this very simple premise, Joyce builds the character of Harold Fry together with his journey to see his friend one last time. While walking the length of England, we learn the secrets of his life through his thoughts, as he recalls what brought him to this life-changing event. Back at home, his wife Maureen doesn’t understand what’s happening, but then, who would? For years she’s been coping with a tired life with this man she once adored. He has changed in so many ways, but so did she. And her secrets are no less part of the problem than Harold’s. How this trek changes them both is what we discover along the way.
Joyce uses elegantly simple, almost conversational language, to bring Harold’s thoughts to us. In this she shows us how unwittingly charming he is through his shy innocence and the reactions of those he meets along the way. Of course, had he been young and fit and well prepared for such a long hike, this wouldn’t have been half as interesting. His physical suffering becomes something that flies alongside his taking stock of his life, and which he won’t allow himself to do away with, even if it hinders him in his quest.
In fact, Harold becomes almost self-effacing in his determination to finish what he set out to do without allowing himself anything to make it easier. In this he becomes a quasi-martyr to his cause. This isn’t the most sympathetic characteristic to have. But martyrs are strong and unbending to their suffering; Harold, on the other hand, is weak. We see this especially when he has difficulty in getting rid of the unwanted group of followers that begin tagging along with him. This is what makes him so loveable and why readers want him to succeed. Despite this, we know he will ultimately fail since he dreams that his reaching Queenie on foot will heal her.
It is hard to talk about this book without becoming effusive. Everything in it beguiles the reader, even when things happen that disturb us. If there is anything that I found to be less than perfect it would be the slightly Jesus-like quality that his ”groupies” project on Harold. Thankfully, Joyce avoids this becoming too much of a Christian metaphor by showing just how false these apostles actually are, because of their own selfishness. Even so, I found these passages to be slightly annoying and a bit too long winded. I would have preferred that their inclusion was less prominent.
Even so, I still enjoyed almost all of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” If I had to sum it up in one phrase, I’d say it is the retired person’s version of a coming-of-age or mid-life crisis experience. Joyce gives us a fascinating story with magnetic characters that encompass human and physical strengths and frailties. For this, I give it a solid four out of five stars and strongly recommend it.